‘Music has the ability to change the way people see Ottawa’

Sabra Ripley
Sabra Ripley is the City of Ottawa’s new cultural industry development officer. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

Sabra Ripley is getting good vibes about Ottawa’s push to become more of a music city.

The face of the city’s new music strategy comes by her passion for performing arts honestly. An Ottawa native, Ripley is a former breakdancer and founder of the all-girl group DeCypher Cru who launched the capital’s House of PainT urban arts and culture festival in 2003. After running the event for more than a decade, she moved to southern Ontario to become a cultural co-ordinator for the City of Toronto, where she helped manage economic development projects focused on arts and culture.

This spring, Ripley returned to her hometown to tackle what might be her biggest challenge yet.

As the City of Ottawa’s new cultural industry development officer, she is the point person when it comes to all things music, acting as a liaison between City Hall and the industry. Her hiring was one of the key planks in Ottawa’s music strategy, a three-year plan unanimously approved by city council in April to help boost the local industry.

Ripley recently sat down with OBJ to talk about her new role, the opportunities it presents and what music really means to the capital, both as a business and as a creative endeavour. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

OBJ: How would you describe your role at the City of Ottawa?

SR: I’m the steward for the music strategy. What does that mean? The music strategy for me is about changing the way that we look at music in the city of Ottawa and acknowledging the powerful and important role of music in our city in terms of economic impact, in terms of quality of life, in terms of heath, in terms of all the indicators, the positive impact that music can have – taking that acknowledgement and then figuring out the ways to open up space and opportunity for music to happen more freely, more easily, more enthusiastically, and to be celebrated and elevated as much as possible in the city of Ottawa. In a way, the music officer’s position is really kind of doing the unfun stuff that makes it possible for the fun music to happen. It’s all about … making sure that there’s a point person people can come to so they don’t have this monolith at the city – that they have one person with a face and a name that they can contact and say, ‘I’m trying to figure out this. Where do I go?’ and I can direct people.

OBJ: How important is the music industry to the quality of life in Ottawa?

SR: It’s a really broad ecosystem, but music has the ability to change the way people see Ottawa. One of the things that I have fought against for a very long time is the idea that nothing happens in Ottawa. The reality is, as long as I’ve been here, there have been people doing interesting and exciting things in Ottawa. There are so many events happening on any given day, and when people have that information, they go to these things, they experience Ottawa in a different way and they walk away seeing (the city) in an entirely new way.

OBJ: What role can other groups and city organizations play in helping to promote the industry?

SR: I know there’s definitely interest at Ottawa Tourism in terms of being able to celebrate Ottawa and Ottawa music. I can’t say specifically what we’re working on yet for that – I’m still too new to this. I know that, for example, OMIC is doing podcasts to feature local artists, and we have existing programs at the city like #ottmusik, where you get local musicians as your hold music when you call the city. It’s an interesting question – is it the role of the city to promote all of the music shows that are happening in Ottawa? We already have really strong independent groups like Apartment 613 that are doing that. I don’t think it’s the city’s role to come in and take over on that. We’re not trying to become the one-stop shop. But certainly the city can do a little more to celebrate what is happening here.

OBJ: Austin, Texas, really got a big buy-in from the business community to promote its music industry, something critics say is lacking here. How can we change that?

“Businesses in Ottawa are changing rapidly, and more and more are embracing creative industries.”

SR: It’s an area we can work on. Businesses in Ottawa are changing rapidly and there are more and more businesses coming in that are embracing creative industries, that understand the role of culture.

A lot of businesses understand that talent flight is tied to how people see the city they’re living in or considering living in and how arts and culture impact the way people see that. As that kind of understanding grows, I hope that we’ll see more investment from the business sector.

OBJ: You’ve talked about giving mid-career musicians more tools to succeed. What are you planning there?

SR: Artists and arts businesses a lot of times have almost fallen into being businesspeople and have never gone through business training. So the idea of creating a business plan might be something entirely new to somebody who has been running a recording studio for years. If we don’t create opportunities at the mid-level, then what we lose is those young professionals who’ve developed five to 10 years of experience as emerging artists, as emerging arts professionals. They’re moving elsewhere because they’re not finding enough employment opportunities.

OBJ: One of the music strategy’s longer-term recommendations is the creation of a high-quality, mid-sized venue in the downtown core. How big a priority is that for you?

SR: There’s not a full consensus on the need for a larger venue, although it’s something that comes up pretty frequently. What I think it would be wonderful to see would be a larger multi-use venue, because music is only one piece. Do we have the capacity to fill a 500-seat venue on a regular basis without putting a lot of other smaller venues out of business? I’m not sure that we’re quite there yet population-wise. Do we have events that need space, whether they’re theatre events, dance, visual showcases and all of the new multimedia arts that are coming out? I think we could probably fill a larger space, but I feel like it would be in the next few years. You’re definitely seeing more and more venues popping up. It would be interesting to see if promoters might move their events to a larger space and be able to do them more sustainably. You see these smaller events spaces pop up, last a few years, and then go under. And part of that is the challenge of bringing in bigger-name artists that would actually draw people out, because you can’t bring in enough people – unless you’re going to be charging $100 a head – to cover the cost of those artists.

(A public-private partnership) is being discussed, but there are no firm plans at this point. It’s nice to know that (discussion is) happening because that’s part of a beginning of a change in culture that needs to happen if Ottawa is going to start opening up more spaces for creative entrepreneurs, music and beyond.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.